The Red Sox have a Craig Kimbrel problem. Although their middle relief, always expected to be the downfall of this roster in October, has performed above and beyond expectations, the man they are bridging to has been awful. There’s really no sugarcoating it. The Red Sox have gotten poor performances out of their closer every time he’s taken the mound this postseason. Yes, it’s only been three outings, but these kinds of trends for relievers can have a tendency to snowball pretty quickly. As a fan, Kimbrel has taken years off my life with at least two of his outings, despite the fact that Boston has still managed to win every game in which he’s pitched. That doesn’t seem likely to continue unless there’s a change coming in some form. Of course, it’s easier said than done figuring out what the change even is, never mind implementing it.
Before we get into this, let’s just take a quick look at the three postseason appearances for Kimbrel. Warning: This content is not suitable for children. The closer’s first postseason outing was his best, though it wasn’t perfect either. He was called upon to get four outs in Game 1 of the ALDS, coming in with two outs in the eighth with a runner on first and a two-run lead. He got out of the eighth quickly, but then the ninth started with a home run to Aaron Judge. To be fair, Aaron Judge has a tendency to do that, but still it cut the lead down to one. Kimbrel did get three straight outs after that, but still it got a little too close for comfort.
The closers Game 4 appearance in New York was certainly his worst appearance of this postseason, and it was legitimately stomach-churning to watch as a fan. This is when he entered with a three-run lead in the ninth and just couldn’t find the zone. He walked two, hit another batter and allowed a single. He also gave up a sacrifice fly, and that combination led to two runs. Once again, he cut the lead down to one before finishing it out. Frankly, he was bailed out by the Yankees here as they took some bad swings against a pitcher who clearly couldn’t find the zone.
After that outing, his appearance in Game 2 of the ALCS was always going to be a big one. He really could have used a clean outing to put that Game 4 near-disaster out of our minds, and he looked like he was going to do it. With another three-run lead, Kimbrel came out and got two quick outs to begin the inning and everything looked good. Then, George Springer hit a double before scoring on a Jose Altuve single off the Monster. Alex Bregman just missed one, and his fly ball ended the game, but it was terrifying. Again, Kimbrel flirted as much with the blown save as he could have without actually blowing it.
So, yeah, it’s been rough to watch. The Red Sox can’t just turn their backs on Kimbrel, though, so they have to figure out the issue. My first issue was that his fastball velocity was to blame. His velocity is actually up this month, and my thought was that he is overthrowing. I think that is part of the issue here, particularly in that middle start when he was yanking fastballs all over the place. However, it’s worth mentioning that his velocity was also up in September, and outside of one bad outing that was a very good month for Kimbrel. Being overamped is probably part of this, but I think it goes deeper than that.
Looking back at some game logs and some video, what becomes clear to me is that it is all about the beginning of an at bat. Kimbrel is starting way too many counts off falling behind, whether it be on the first pitch or a couple offerings later, and that just isn’t working for him. Maybe it’s starting to get in his head after that, but whatever the reason he needs to get ahead. The cause seems to be that Kimbrel is pitching backwards too often. This month, he’s starting with his curveball a whopping 65 percent of the time after doing so only 44 percent of the time during the regular season. It’s understandable, as Kimbrel has faced two of the most talented lineups in recent memory, and keeping them off-balance is one of the few ways to beat them. It’s simply not working, though.
When Kimbrel’s at his best, his curveball is impossible to lay off. Much of this is because of how well it plays off his fastball, but the key is that he needs batters to swing and chase. That doesn’t work as well when there is no fastball off of which the pitch can play. Case in point: Opponents have swung at exactly zero curveballs from Kimbrel this postseason (per Brooks Baseball). That’s simply not a recipe for success, and whether it’s because he’s tipping his pitches or because they are just making him throw for strikes before offering it needs to change. They are laying off the breaking ball, which means Kimbrel is falling behind in counts, which means he’s forced to the fastball. Now, batters no what to expect and that leads to hard contact or it leads to Kimbrel overthrowing the heaters, yanking it and falling even further behind in the count.
It goes without saying, but when batters are getting ahead in counts they have more leeway to force the pitcher to come in to them. Again, Kimbrel is at his best when batters can’t sit on just one pitch and either get blown away by his velocity or are made to look silly chasing the curveball. Looking at his zone plot from the regular season compared to that of the postseason, it becomes clear just how rare chases are becoming. Most concerning is that the biggest difference is on his glove side, which is of course where the curveball ends up more often that not.
It needs to be reiterated that we are dealing with a near-microscopic sample against two historically great lineups. There is always the possibility that we are just dealing with some small sample size noise at the worst possible time. That being said, the Red Sox can’t really afford to sit back and find out. To me, it seems like Kimbrel just needs to get back to the basics. Start with the fastball more often, and don’t overthrow it. Settle for 96 mph and get it over for a strike, and then go from there. Maybe he gets beat, and that’s just the way it goes. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but he’s playing a really good offense! The way he’s going, though, he’s not giving himself a chance. At the end of this day, he’s still Craig Kimbrel. He’s still the future Hall of Famer whose stuff is as good as it’s ever been. It’s time for him to trust it and stop trying to do too much. If he doesn’t, it’s hard to see the Red Sox continuing to escape these games with wins.